When I was 26, I had an interview for a job at a PR firm in Las Vegas. I was ecstatic about the possibility of moving to the stubbornly exceptional city I’d always loved to visit. I took a cab directly from McCarran to the firm, buzzing with anticipation of my Vegas future.
The driver was a woman in her 40s.
“You don’t want to move here,” she said. “Vegas is a terrible town for women.”
She described a culture of beauty at all costs, one that made it difficult for a woman to get ahead on anything but her looks. Her words were slightly terrifying. When I didn’t get the job, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be moving to a town where my self-esteem would be assaulted at every turn.
That conversation has stuck with me for more than seven years, and it’s no surprise that every time I come to Las Vegas—and it’s been almost 20 times since then—I think about the role of women in this town and in our society.
I don’t have a daughter, but if I did, she would know two things about her mother: that I am a feminist, and that I love Las Vegas. I would most certainly bring her here at some point. Neither rain, nor snow, nor progeny will ever curtail my visits to the town that I now consider my second home. To me, Las Vegas has always been a place that has made its own way, often against the opposition of others, and the fact that it won’t take no for an answer has always endeared it to me.
But as I walk past the legions of men, and sometimes women, handing out “Girls to your room” cards and see giant moving billboards of scantily clad women—Hot Babes! Yours for one quick phone call!—weaving down Las Vegas Boulevard, I can’t help wondering: How would I explain to my hypothetical daughter that I love this town even though it does things I detest? Can I even call myself a feminist if I look forward to visiting a place where, the illegality of prostitution notwithstanding, women are often depicted as a product that you can buy and sell?
The problem is, you can’t understand the situation of women in Las Vegas without taking a hard look at a national culture where everything is a commodity, and where, if we want to make ends meet, we’re hard-pressed not to participate in the bazaar. The men and women handing out baseball-card-size pictures of topless women and the ones driving those mobile billboards probably don’t have a vast array of options in their efforts to support their families. The same goes, in many ways, for the women whose images are on the cards and the billboards. I wish this blatant advertising of women for sex would miraculously disappear from Las Vegas. But I know that it probably never will.
Supreme Court decisions over the years have been quicker to limit commercial speech than individual or political speech, but they haven’t wanted to shut the door entirely on the idea that a business venture has its own right to “free speech,” especially on a public right-of-way like Las Vegas Boulevard. In this respect, I’d say that we’ve been asking the wrong question: “Can we do this?” shifts the conversation to legalisms and passionate defenses of the First Amendment. “Why do we do this?” isn’t much better, because most any flesh-trade business will have a simple answer: “Because we can.” The real question is, “Should we do this?”
Is there a point at which the risqué playfulness of Las Vegas—which I, like millions of others, enjoy—turns into rank exploitation? And what effect do these ads have on us when we see them every day? Maybe we see them so often that we think we’ve learned to block them out. But one has to wonder if that’s really a good thing.
So again I come to the question: What would I tell my daughter when she sees women in Las Vegas advertised on the sides of moving trailer rigs? I don’t think she’d be concerned with the bigger picture, with the global exploitation of women. She’d probably want to know why that lady isn’t wearing clothes, or what it means that she’ll come “direct to your room” if you call the number. Well, dear, it means that… There’s the problem. When the question is why a woman is being marketed like a toaster oven, it’s hard to give a decent answer without touching on the tangled relationship between economics and culture.
These days we have a hard time with the concept that there’s something, anything, that can’t be bought and sold. Yes, prostitution is illegal in Clark County, and what ostensibly goes on up in those rooms is—not to put to too fine a point on it—high-intensity stripping rather than paid sex. (In other news, the purpose of miniskirts is ostensibly to keep the thighs warm.) My concern here, though, is not the service rendered to the customer in private, but the impression marketed to all of us, kids included, on the public city streets.
So when that mobile billboard rolls down the street, I know what I’d have to tell my daughter: Human beings aren’t for sale. It sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Like maybe it’s something that should go without saying. But the next time you’re stuck in traffic behind that big phone number, it might be worth it to go ahead and ask yourself: What exactly are they selling?